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Steve Aschburner

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Michael Cooper, against Adrian Dantley in 1989, was a tenacious defender.
Mike Powell/Getty Images

Role players take on added importance in playoff time


Posted Apr 14 2010 11:59AM

The playoffs, we have been and will be told countless times, are that third trimester of the NBA year when stars absolutely must play like stars. Rotations tighten and benches get shortened.

So how is it that the game's role players seem to take on greater importance than ever at this time of year?

Think about it: The postseason is when San Antonio's Bruce Bowen and the Lakers' Michael Cooper really made their bones, and gained widespread acclaim, as defensive specialists. Three-point sharpshooters like Steve Kerr and John Paxson never seemd more deadly than in April, May or June. And for all his work at or above the rim, perhaps the most enduring memory of shot-swatting Dikembe Mutombo came with him at ankle level, flat on his back, clutching the ball immediately after Denver's 8 vs. 1, first-round upset of Seattle in 1994.

Sometimes, as with Mutombo, the status of a role players bleeds all the way to All-Star. Most of the time, though, they get that weekend off each February, start to get busy over the season's traditional "second half" and then really step up (or not) when playoff shares and jewelry matter more than paychecks.

As a catch-all term, "role player" can elicit various reactions. Some players would recoil at being classified in such a mundane way -- almost everyone in the NBA was a star at some level in his recent or distant past. Other guys, though, embrace it, welcoming the cover it provides -- "Hey, we're all just role players" -- by spreading a team's responsibility around. Or maybe they just like the blue-collar sound of it, like a CEO who tugs on jeans and picks up power tools on the weekend.

However you define it, a team without role players is a team without much hope. Particularly now.

"That's part of team chemistry, team unity, when guys know their roles," said Minnesota coach Kurt Rambis, who knew his role well enough as a bruising, energetic power forward to win four rings with the Lakers and play 14 NBA seasons. "Whether it's guys accepting a role coming off the bench, accepting a role of playing sparsely, accepting a role of being a facilitator as a point guard, accepting a role as a rebounder, whatever it is, and making a sacrifice for the benefit of the team. When you get guys to accept their roles, then that's the beginnings of a team concept."

Sometimes, role players help most when they're not playing at all. "You have two types -- the ones who are playing are important, obviously," Boston coach Glenn (Doc) Rivers said. "But the ones who aren't playing are important, too, because if they don't handle it right, they can affect your team [in the playoffs]. And they have to stay ready, because you may go to eight or nine. There's a game or two when guys are going to be in foul trouble or someone is not going to be playing well, and you're going to throw someone else in -- and he has to be ready.

"We had the perfect situation two years ago with Leon [Powe] and 'Baby' [Glen Davis]. It went back and forth a lot with those two guys and I thought they always stayed ready. It was [determined by] how they were playing. Them pushing each other really helped us."

The beauty of role players is that they fill a team's needs in a game without having, or being asked, to do too much. The challenge is that therer are countless roles to be filled in the NBA -- at least several per team, depending on its makeup -- so what might earn a hard-working player a four-year, $20 million contract with one club won't even assure him of a roster spot with another. It's all about fit.

Dave D'Alessandro, NBA maven for the Newark Star-Ledger, has likened the talent steps in basketball to baseball's more widely used "five tool" system. In hoops, D'Alessandro has written, the five bankable skills that can earn a player an NBA living are passing/handling, shooting/scoring, rebounding, shot-blocking and defending. His take is that doing one of those things at a high level can get you employed somewhere in the league, while doing two extremely well can earn you a spot in some coach's rotation. Those guys, who bring one or two skills every night, would fit his definition of "role player." (Do three, four or all five things well and we're talking about starters, All-Stars and perennial MVP candidates.)

For my purposes here, I'm going with seven familiar types of role players -- and some whose greatest talents aren't as quantifiable as those on D'Alessandro's list. I like to think of it as a "starting five" of skill categories that we see filled again and again across good teams and bad, along with the lauded Sixth Man specialty and, finally, one intangibles guy. Of these, Sixth Man is the only one that gets official recognition with a trophy each year -- Defensive Player of the Year always is a tug of war between interior and perimeter defenders.

Still, if it were up to a lot of basketball people, there might also be awards presented every spring to the very best on-the-ball defenders, 3-point marksmen, rebounder-defenders, shot blockers, game-changers and "glue" guys. And the tricky part is that the worth of these guys is determined more by the roster around them than by their own skills or resumes. It's all about giving a team what it needs, and teams differ even when the player is the same. Examples: Ben Wallace in Detroit is different than Ben Wallace in Chicago. Or Jason Terry in Atlanta vs. the same guy in a different role in Dallas.

This first of two parts features some of the best role players of all time. Not necessarily the best. Just favorites.

Part II on Thursday will look at the top role players, by category, who will be active -- and making a difference -- in the 2010 playoffs:

Rebounder/defender

Wallace, mentioned above, gave the Pistons what they needed on the floor and, just as important, gave that club its defensive identity. We can go back to NBA strongmen such as Paul Silas and Charles Oakley, who did the heavy lifting while others handled their teams' glamour chores. But Dennis Rodman might be the greatest role player of all time in the NBA, and while it might never get him to Springfield -- his antics, hair colors and taste in wedding gowns might derail that -- it did help him and a bunch of Detroit and Chicago teammates win five rings.

On-the-ball defender

This is another stalwart role, populated not only by role players but by some of the most skilled performers in hoops history (Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Scottie Pippen, to name three, could be among the most tenacious at locking down an opposing scorer). For an old-school nominee, Sacramento coach Paul Westphal nominated a different Chicago alum. "Norm Van Lier was the toughest guy that ever guarded me,'' Westphal said. "He was quick, he liked being a pest, he was just tenacious. He knew how to be where I didn't want him to be."

Newer school, you might think Bowen, Raja Bell, Shane Battier, Ron Artest. But the choice here among former players is Michael Cooper, who was both a prototype and incredibly effective in the role. Said Rambis: "He was a student of the game. He did a great job of watching videotape back then and analyzing his opponents' tendencies. And also very quick-footed -- he had a nice wide base and was able to stay in front of people. He was also athletic enough that he could be a good weak-side defender."

Three-point specialist

If you could throw the ball to one guy, with your team down by three points and time running out in Game 7, whom would you want on the receiving end of that pass? That might be the top criterion for this role, although there's something to be said for the hot-handed fellow who can sub in at the 12- or 36-minute mark and break a defense's back with a flurry of long balls. Going with the former definition, I'd want the ball going to Steve Kerr, who spread the floor when it mattered most for championship teams in Chicago and San Antonio.

Shot-blocker

Marvin Webster was something to see in his day, especially with the Seattle SuperSonics. Mark Eaton was a wall that few could scale in Utah. Several greats worthy of the NBA's extended Mt. Rushmore -- Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Hakeem Olajuwon -- swatted a stunning number of shots, but they also were complete packages in terms of stats and titles won. No, it was that finger wag of Dikembe Mutombo that made shot-blocking fun to watch for reasons beyond the defensive impact.

Game-changer

By this, I'm thinking those change-of-pace guys, those players whose unique skill sets or size could alter a game almost as soon as they stepped on the court. Fellows like Manute Bol. Or Muggsy Bogues. Or, and the favorite here, Spud Webb, who took the little-man tradition to new heights, literally and figuratively.

Sixth Man

If you wanted to just go by numbers, well, Kevin McHale won the award twice. So did Ricky Pierce and Detleft Schrempf. Bobby Jones was the inaugural Sixth Man winner, and his defense and work running the wings on fast breaks helped the 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers win a championship. Still, I like a guy who -- despite his reputation -- never actually got honored as the league's top super-sub: Vinnie Johnson. Johnson, a.k.a. The Microwave, provided instant offense to Detroit's 1989 and 1990 title teams and did so while generating dread in opponents and anticipation in fans just by walking to the scorer's table to check in.

Glue guy

This is the role player of role players, the teammate who sees what a club needs on or even off the floor and goes a little chameleon. Or you could liken these guys to caulk because they find the cracks in a club and do what they can to fill them. It's way more than just cheering on the side; Westphal shook his head when I mentioned Boston's famous towel-waver, M.L. Carr. "It's a player who doesn't care about stats," the Sacramento coach said. "Will be a good team defender as well as individual defender. Offensively, it's someone who can help his team play better, whether that means setting a screen or boxing our or moving the ball or knocking down an open shot. Just somebody who doesn't make a lot of mistakes, who his teammates know is there and they rely on him."

OK, so maybe this is playing fast and loose with the rules set forth above, but the greatest "glue guy" in NBA history might have been Magic Johnson because of his versatility and the way he kept a finger on his teammates' pulses.

"He had the ball in his hands all the time," Rambis said. "If he wanted to shoot 35 shots, no one was going to say anything about it. But his point of emphasis was to make sure that everyone else was happy. Got to touch the basketball and got their opportunities to score, because he knew the impact that would have at the defensive end. Would you classify Magic Johnson as a 'glue guy?' That would be some of the finest glue that was ever produced."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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